Tuesday, March 23
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn is utterly worthy of adoration. The demurely blithe singer and songwriter, who hails from Philadelphia by way of Olympia by way of Philly (and originally, apparently by way of, her parents' kitchen table) is petite and precious and blonde and bespectacled. She possesses of a pure, gorgeously girlish soprano, though befitting her sweet'n'saucy lyrical sensibilities, she employs it at times for less than pure ends. And she's just adorable. But beyond that, she's responsible for two of the finest records of the last few years. Though her gentle personable debut, You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This may have included several of underdeveloped tunes among its myriad gems, and the adventurous production of its acclaimed successor Advisory Committee sometimes worked at cross-purposes to the songs themselves, both are remarkably charming collections of creative, vaguely folk-type music, with some truly exquisite songwriting.
"C'mon Miracle," her third proper full-length, happily doesn't stray far from the strengths of the first two, falling perhaps somewhere in between them in terms of tone. In fact some of these tunes feel so familiar that I could have sworn I'd heard them before. Partly because this is easily her most self-assured release yet, I'm pretty sure that even folks who haven't heard her earlier work will find it instantly inviting and comfortable.
Right off the bat, the sparse "Nobody Has to Stay" offers a contrast to "Advisory Committee"'s bombastsic opening epic "Cold, Cold Water," with a delicately plucked guitar eventually joined by quietly moaning strings while Mirah pleas for compassion in a lonely world. The slightly more rocking "Jerusalem" expands that plea from the personal to geopolitical level, while "The Light" broadens it even further, with what seems to be a direct address to the divine: "[we'll] tremble before your valor if you just get down on your knees/and promise to all your children true that you will live in peace." This opening triptych, gradually growing in intensity, sets a strikingly diverse sonic palette for such an unassuming record, and it is just a foretaste of the loveliness that is to follow.
The luscious "Don't Die in Me", for instance navigates between lilting indie-folk and a intoxicating samba groove. "We're Both So Sorry", another standout, opens with a few spare autoharp strums under, then adds trombone choir and some wispy double-tracked vocals before exploding into a sublimely surreal calvalcade of dubby distorted clicks punctuated with psychedelic flutes, as the lyrics progress from straightforward nostalgic melancholy to a barrage of rather rancorous one-liners and deftly woven monarchical imagery. Similar lo-fi trickery (the production hallmark of Phil Elvirum aka Mr. Microphone), as well as marimba, harp, and accordion, among other things, pop up elsewhere in the album, serving always to embellish, and never to detract from, the deceptive simplicity of the songs, many of which are among Mirah's best yet. Probably the most consistent of her albums to date, it's also more cohesive than you might expect - along with her marvelous voice, her delicate acoustic guitar work on almost every track helps maintain unity. And it's concise, with just eleven songs clocking in at 36 minutes.
Perhaps because of her understated, nuanced approach and the range of emotions and themes she addresses, Mirah's albums, though always more than simply collections of songs, tend to feel like progress reports rather than definitive statements. It may be that she will never release a single, indisputable "masterpiece" (though eventually historicizing consensus is bound to designate one, because that's the way rockcritdom - and fandom - works), because when you get down to it there's something rather cold and impersonal in that idea - and that's the antithesis of Mirah's music. At this rate though, it's just as likely that she'll never release an album that's less than utterly worthy of exploration.
[p.s. this is my favorite album of 2004 so far, along with Daedelus' Of Snowdonia and maybe something else.]
Cellar Door by John Vanderslice
On his fourth albums in five years, indie superproducer and inveterate nice guy John Vanderslice succeeds by doing what he's always done, only with less intentionality. His last two records, as frequently fantastic as they were, often felt uncomfortably constrained by overly deliberate production, overarching lyrical conceits (both were loosely narrative song cycles), and by their very albumness. On Cellar Door, the focus is unambiguously on the songs themselves, and happily so as this is his most consistent batch of songs to date. Each one is fully formed and self-contained, not just a part subservient to the whole - which has a terrifically liberating effect on the whole.
Although there is no overt lyrical concept, the album is unified by recurring themes of family, memory, isolation, and mortality. Every song is sung in first person, and each narrator/protagonist – a prison guard, a ghost-haunted Vietnam veteran, a man powerless to escape his domineering (mafia-esque?) family, someone irrationally driven to destroy a bluebird in his yard, and others grieving (or numb to) the loss of loved ones to diving accidents, addiction, dissociation, mistaken identity – is sketched with a similar detached compassion, captured perceptively but unobtrusively in Vanderslice's economic verse. Despite the frank tone and emotional impact there's something fundamentally inaccessible about most of these characters. It's unclear (and essentially irrelevant) how many if any of the songs are autobiographical, but "Promising Actress" stands out as the most direct - taken at face value, it simply consists of John's musings trying to make sense of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Lynch is an interesting intriguing reference point - he's an obscurantist whereas Vanderslice explores and reveals human emotion at its most raw and exposed, but their work often shares a similar sense of constructedness and abstraction.
For Vanderslice, a consummate recording-equipment geek, this is most evident in his carefully wrought production. Reportedly the result of over four hundred hours in his Tiny Telephone studio, Cellar Door is characteristically replete with layers of orchestration, sonic details, and nuances that reveal themselves through repeated listens. Fortunately, Vanderslice is more successful than ever here at implementing his studio wizardry to augment the emotional power of his songs, rather than asserting itself distractingly to their potential detriment. Musically, there’s a greater stylistic range here than on previous records, including more rocking rockers and a few touchingly simple ballads. I can’t help but feel that John’s genuine personality – he comes off as an almost irrepressibly enthusiastic and good-natured fellow in person – is far more evident in his facile, winsome music than in the rather bleak and depraved view of humanity conveyed in his words. Although never making light of the emotional content of the lyrics, and in places underscoring their tension with marvelous effectiveness, the music offers a reassuringly stable counterpoint to the pathos and pain of the songs’ narrators.
Despite the amount of careful consideration that clearly went into creating this album, Cellar Door is an impressively subtle record; unassuming, if not unaffected. There’s something almost organic in its complexity and the expansiveness of its artfulness. In terms of art imitating life, in the best sense, this is a wonderfully effective imitation.
Five Point One DVD by Cornelius + PM CD by Humans
Cornelius’ Point came out in 2002, and it was to my mind easily the most underrated album of that year. Markedly calmer than Fantasma, its dizzying predecessor, Point utilized a simple, consistent palette of sounds – acoustic guitar strums, breathy vocal snippets, crisp live percussion, and occasional sounds of birdsong or splashing water – meticulously recombined into an intricate, playful, and gorgeous cycle of pieces. Redolent in places of electro-funk, bossa nova, and prog rock, but ultimately something quite unique, Point is and was a gentle masterwork, utterly worthy of exploration. Two years on, Matador have provided an excellent opportunity for exploring or re-exploring it, in the form of this generously priced set. The DVD doesn’t contain the album in its entirety – the sprightly cover of "Brazil" and the loungy closer "Nowhere" are both sadly AWOL – but the bulk of it that is here is presented in 5.1 surround format (hence the title.) Now, I usually think that kind of thing is silly, but if it makes sense to quintophonize any music, it would be this album, whose myriad clicks and pings and bells and whistles sound ready to burst out of your speakers. (Though as for me, my hi-fi is still mired in the stereophonic age, so the best I can do is put on my headphones and imagine what it would be like to have five ears.)
Similarly, I don’t ordinarily have much truck with music videos, but this precise, evocative music is unusually well suited to visual forms of expression, and the clips presented on this DVD don’t disappoint. Like the album itself, they are crisp and lucid in conception but uncannily affecting in execution, and they form a cohesive unit, with recurring elements – images of water, hands, blue paint, everyday objects – linking the individual videos. About equally divided between animation and live action, the videos present a magical childlike world – one of dancing microscopes, tapwater falling sideways, self-reconfiguring paint-people, and origami boats on crayon-line seas; where we can take a journey around the room from the point of view of a house-fly or a pair of fingers – which forms a perfect visual analogue for Cornelius’ wondrous, inventive music.
The DVD comes packaged with an audio CD, PM (for "point mixes"), with reworkings of Point done by "humans." That is, as with the recent Dismemberment Plan remix album, these were produced not by established "name" musicians, but fans. Unfortunately, it doesn’t as nearly work as well as the DisPlan disc. Although the remixers are for the most part respectful of the sonic source material – which means that these tracks do all sound pretty nice – they largely fail to add much worthwhile, and almost categorically do away with the simplicity and subtlety which made Point so engaging. The (suprisingly few) tracks that do refer to specific songs, rather than just reworking the sounds of the album as a whole, are at least inoffensive, but hardly revelatory. A couple are unexpectedly abrasive, or seem to channel Fantasma’s frenetic, kinetic, energy in an maddengly unfocused. Others, like attention-getting "MC Cat Genius BoomBassTic Rebomb", which pitchshifts "I Hate Hate"’s guitar squalls for a little minute before giving way to a bizarro skit and laconic hip-hop, are amusing but fairly devoid of replay value.
Still, the package as a whole works as a loving tribute to an unfairly ignored album, and while it doesn’t quite edge out Point as my go-to recommendation for Cornelius novices, it is worth investigation by those who want more. As a final note, allow me to mention that the package design is ingenious: the two discs sit on a single rosette in a deep-set tray, eliminating the need for those confusing, easily broken hinged trays on 2CD jewel cases. Simple; elegant; brilliant. I’m not sure if this idea has been used before, but I hope it will catch on. (Um, yeah, like the album.)